Finding Connection

“Finding Connection”, a filmed a cappella musical drama, went live on November 10, 2019. It can be viewed, for free, on YouTube:

Here is a link to the playlist on YouTube, if you want to skip around or view videos individually.

The message in “Finding Connection”

“Finding Connection” is a filmed a cappella musical drama about finding personal connection in a digitally connected world. Each song offers a different perspective on the themes of friendship, loneliness, social media, and the role of cellphones in modern culture. The general subject of loneliness is addressed in “Missed Connection” and “Ready or Not”, while the more modern concept of loneliness despite the constant connectivity of cellphones is explored in “Why Don’t We Just Talk” and “Cut Off”. Yes, cellphones can be a nuisance, as “Don’t Call Me” opines, and there are benefits to putting down the screen and living life in the real world for a while (“Give It Up”, “Take A Moment”).The truth is, however, that opting out of social media can be extremely isolating (“If I Log Out”), and having the ability to reach out and talk to someone is important, as illustrated by “End of the Line”. This human connection is what really matters, and – despite the hand-wringing – is ultimately why today’s generation will turn out just fine (“We’ll Be Alright”).

The underlying theme in “Finding Connection” is that cellphones are merely a tool, and many of the problems we ascribe to cellphones and social media are fundamentally a problem of human nature. As an example, “This Is Where We Smile” takes a neutral stance on selfies. Yes, selfies can be narcissistic – narcissism, of course, being nothing new – but they are also a tool of self-expression and connection, and dismissively reducing self-portrait taking to mere vanity ignores issues of privilege and artistic identity. A person taking, editing, and posting a picture of their own self is powerful and subversive; it allows that person to present themself on their own terms, an option often not otherwise open to marginalized people when a single predominant cultural force controls the lens through with all others are perceived. 

This specific theme – of giving control of the camera to the subject being photographed – is endemic to “Finding Connection”. Much of the footage was shot by the actors themselves on their own cellphones, allowing them to control not only their performance, but the angles and perspective as well. In watching the videos you are largely seeing what the actors themselves chose for you to see. This is where we imagine who we want to be. This is where our image becomes our reality.

Choosing how you present yourself to the world, via photograph, is artistically identical to presenting yourself in other media: clothing, writing, visual arts – indeed, identical to recording yourself and a group of friends singing a bunch of original songs, editing them, and putting them on the web for other people to enjoy. The tools themselves are just that: a means of amplifying our own intentions. Tech doesn’t show us how to live. It allows us to live the way we want.

Writing and Performing “Finding Connection”

The vast majority of the work on “Finding Connection” was completed during a period of 5 months, from June 15, 2019 (the date of singer auditions), to November 10 (the date the videos were posted to YouTube). Soon after completing my previous filmed opera project, “Come With Me”, in December 2017, I started developing the idea of filming my next project on cellphones, further pushing the concept of “opera verismo”. I pitched this idea in a couple of grant applications, but failed to secure any funding. I remained excited about the concept, though, and decided to move forward anyway, with the limited resources I had.

The text was completed in the first half of 2019, as well as some musical sketches and an early version of the first piece “Missed Connection”, which was performed by Voices of Silicon Valley at a concert in conjunction with Pamela Z. After that, I decided I needed to hire the cast of singers before I composed any more.  I wanted the score to push as many vocal boundaries as possible, which required knowing what extended vocal techniques each individual singer was capable of.

By late June, the singers were hired and I was working on the score in earnest. See “The Score and Vocal Techniques” below for more on this part of the process.

A total of 8 music rehearsals took place between July 30 and September 17. Rehearsal time was spent learning notes, experimenting with new techniques, and listening to excerpts of other songs and groups. In addition to these rehearsals, the singers worked on their own and in extra sessions with me to get all the music learned. The schedule was aggressive but the singers proved up to the task.

The audio recordings were done on September 24 and October 1 at Reeds Recordings in Campbell. Each singer was individually mic’d to allow tighter post-processing control, and the songs were recorded in small chunks, to allow each song to be pieced together from the best of various takes. All the music in the final production is from these 2 sessions, with the exception of some overdubs by myself (it turns out I can’t conduct and sing at the same time) and Emily (who was monitoring the recordings from the soundboard with the engineer).

Filming was done over the course of 2 days, October 19 and 20. I planned out both days in great detail to ensure we would be able to get all the required shots, which was a challenge. “Finding Connection” features 11 songs and 7 dialogues, and takes place at 6 locations. I had gotten location approval for the cafe scenes (filmed at Eva Sweets Bakery in Redwood City) and the bathroom scene (filmed at EarLens Corp. in Menlo Park). The rest of the scenes were filmed in public or on property controlled by a cast member. Filming on cellphones here really made this possible – with multiple people filming in conjunction, we were able to essentially get several takes/angles of the same scene with just a single playthrough of the music.

I would also like to note that there were no staging rehearsals – the cast was merely given some basic blocking and told to “act normal”, after which the cameras started rolling. Virtually all of the acting decisions were unscripted and spontaneous. As a result, these two filming days were the most fun for me out of the entire project period. Although I was responsible for keeping everyone on a tight timeline, the vibe was very much “hanging out with friends and posting the experience to social media”.

At the end of the filming days I downloaded everyone’s cellphone footage to my own computer, and recorded ADR for the dialogue scenes. Then, with all the source material at my disposal, I spent three weeks editing together the final project. This original cast performance of “Finding Connection” was posted to YouTube on November 10, 2019.

The Score and Vocal Techniques

I’ve had the idea to write an “a cappella opera” for several years, and with “Finding Connection” I have accomplished it. The human voice is capable of an astonishing range of tone and expression, more so than any other single instrument, and an ensemble of 8 voices is sufficient to surpass a traditional orchestra in everything but volume.

I originally conceived “Finding Connection” as an opera, but the finished product is probably musical theater, by modern criteria:

  1. The climax of the work is spoken (“Cut Off” is, in my opinion, the climax)
  2. It is performed in microphones
  3. Musical theater allows a wider range of vocal styles, notably rap and spoken word, that opera really has no place for

I personally consider the work an opera, however, because it continues the operatic tradition of pushing the limits of human vocal performance (louder, faster, higher), within the confines of a dramatic performance.

Each song contains 8-10 vocal lines. The vocal lines are separated conceptually by function. At any given moment in the score there may be one or more Soloist accompanied by the Accompaniment, which is further subclassifed as Harmony, Effect, Rhythm, or Noise.  I wanted my score to leave the idiosyncrasies of the human voice intact – things like glissandi, vocal formants, sibilants, breaths, whistles, clicks, &c, &c. With the score, I tried to walk the tightrope between catchy, singable melody and fringe avant-garde music. Much of the music sits comfortably within the framework of established choral technique, but a lot of it is squarely in the experimental zone, and there are even some techniques which, to my knowledge, are completely original and have never been attempted before.

Examples of Extended and Experimental Techniques

  • Singers moving in parallel glissandi from chord to chord (“Ready Or Not”)
  • Unstructured overtone singing (“Take a Moment”)
  • Synchronized overtones (“Why Don’t We Just Talk”; also developed in “Partials” which has been recorded but not yet released)
  • Kargyraa / throat singing (“This Is Where We Smile”)
  • Breathing and hissing sounds (“Why Don’t We Just Talk”, “Cut Off”)
  • Whistle tone (“Take a Moment”, on the ascending hums)

Examples of Original Techniques (please contact me if you’ve seen/heard these before, I’d love to become acquainted with other pieces that use them)

  • modifying formants by positioning a hand or cup over the mouth (“Give It Up”)
  • “harmonized speech” where the singers speak in a normal cadence but the group as a whole moves together in pitch from chord to chord (“Missed Connection”, “End of the Line”)
  • a solo singer enunciating text normally while the accompaniment matches their vowels – contrast this with the normal technique of having the group sing “oo” or “ah” under a soloist
  • one performer speaks while another sings in unison, not with the speakers fundamental pitch, but with their first overtone (“Cut Off”)
  • one performer blowing across another performer’s pursed lips, to create a bottle-blowing “hoot” tone (the kiss in “We’ll Be Alright”)

All these techniques are in addition, of course, to the normal stylistic requirements of, eg, straight-tone choral singing vs operatic singing vs rapping vs beat-boxing [etc], which the singers transitioned through flawlessly from song to song.

The score was engraved using Steinberg’s Dorico software, which I cannot recommend highly enough. I have used MakeMusic’s Finale since college but needed a more flexible and fast software to get this avant-garde score ready in less than a month. Dorico is an enviable combination of easy-to-learn and powerful-enough-to-handle-whatever. I downloaded a free month-long trial, which enabled me to enter and print the entire 80-page score (“If I Log Out” was completed a few weeks after the first rehearsal), then went ahead and purchased the full version after a very positive email exchange with their support staff.

This page will be updated with any relevant information (additional performances; publishing) if and when they come up.